ANALYSIS: Women's Hockey
Defense's maturation sparks resurgence and run to championship
One might turn to tri-captain Nicole Corriero’s 59 goals, which broke the previous record for tallies in a season, as the reason for the team’s success.
There is no denying the role of Corriero’s offensive play, but one player cannot carry a team that far. Corriero had to bear most of the offensive load, registering 37 percent of Harvard’s goals this season, not because of the consistent potency of the Crimson offense, but rather because of the team’s need for her to assume that burden.
On defense, however, Corriero contributed to what became a team-wide strength, as Harvard developed one of the best penalty-kill units in the nation.
“We don’t just build on offense, we build on great defense too,” Corriero said.
At the beginning of the season, it did not seem as if this dictum would hold true. Harvard gave up 20 goals in four games against WCHA competitors when Wisconsin, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth traveled to Cambridge starting in late November.
Additionally, the Crimson needed to find its identity in net, as both sophomore Emily Vitt and junior Ali Boe shared starts between the pipes in big-game situations.
“We’ve got to figure out who the number one goalie is, or else we’ve got two number ones,” said head coach Katey Stone after a disappointing early-season tie against Providence.
And with two number ones, the Crimson could not find its rhythm either in the net or in the defensive zone against the better teams.
After the Christmas break, Stone introduced what players called “Harvard boot camp” to help the team build more endurance and keep its defensive presence at the end of the season.
“One thing we realized [was that] no matter how hard we worked, we weren’t going to die,” Corriero said. “The coaches really pushed us. Because of our really intense game schedule in November and December, it was tough for them to do that before. Now was a great opportunity for them to push us and see how far we could go.”
Until the NCAA tournament, the Crimson then allowed just 19 goals in 18 games, propelling itself to a 16-0-2 record over that stretch.
With this defensive approach to the season, the team ended with a 1.82 goals against average, good for top five in the country.
In the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Mercyhurst brought a strong offensive effort to Bright Hockey Center and almost upset the Crimson with a barrage against Boe.
Nevertheless, when crunch time came, Harvard stepped up and extended its season with three overtime periods of shut-down defense and goaltending. After the game, which Harvard won 5-4, the Crimson did not focus on Corriero’s four-goal outburst, but what she helped do on the other side of the ice.
“I attribute this win to our defense,” Chu said. “They played tough and they had a lot of pressure from Mercyhurst. I think offense takes care of itself in a certain way, but defense—you need to be precise about it.”
Entering the game against the Lady Lakers, the Crimson boasted the second-best penalty kill unit, right behind that of Mercyhurst. While Harvard managed to convert on its own power plays to stay in the game, it prevented the Lady Lakers from scoring any on five chances. The unit of Corriero, Chu, and freshman Sarah Vaillancourt even killed a minute of 5-3 ice time in the first period and another half minute in the first overtime.
While one more defensive gem—a 4-1 romp over St. Lawrence in the semis—left Harvard at the doorstep, the most potent attack in college could not be stopped, as Minnesota defeated the Crimson in the title game for a second straight year.
—Staff writer Gabriel M. Velez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.